By Linda L. Osmundson
In the past, women have conquered many obstacles and succeeded in their fields of choice. Women artists were no different. In order to sell their works in the early days, they seldom signed their own names. They used a made-up name or their husband’s. Why? Because women were not accepted as artists. A daughter was expected to
learn to play a musical instrument, paint a little, sew and carry on a good conversation. It was presumed they would marry and raise a family. But, many girls showed a talent for painting. Some even created sculptures.
The general public limited their subjects to portraits, still-lifes, or landscapes with no people. Art workshops excluded girls. They could not study the human body. Parents discouraged any talk of being an artist. One example is Mary Cassatt (1844 - 1926). She told her father she wanted to be an artist. He supposedly said, “I’d rather see you dead.” She found teachers. Eventually she moved to Paris and specialized in pictures of mothers and children.
Women artists who painted the West were limited in subjects, too. Most ignored the rules. Those who traveled or followed their husbands west drew what they saw and experienced. They taught other women to paint. They painted for pleasure. Western women illustrated the hard frontier life, before pioneer settlers invaded the land.
Women studied with the likes of Charles Russell, the Cowboy Artist. They attended schools throughout America and Europe. Others taught themselves. The Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West lists hundreds of women artists. Still, we don’t know who they were. They often gave their paintings away to friends and relatives.
The works ended up in attics or lost.
One of the first western women artists was Eliza Griffin Johnston. She traveled with her soldier husband from Missouri to Texas in 1836. She painted flowers he loved and created a book of her works for his birthday. Later, they moved to California.
In 1858, fifty women held their first art show in San Francisco. They displayed works of landscapes, missions, Indian camps, flowers and other plants. Each year the exhibit grew. Women’s art began to be noticed. Companies bought their art.
Currier and Ives hired Fanny Palmer (1812 - 1876) to make lithographs of settlers crossing the Western plains. How would she know that experience? She never traveled beyond the borders of New Jersey. Eastern artists’ works sometimes held little facts but lots of imagination.
Several women painted or sculpted in Colorado. Mary Achey (1832 - 1886) pictured the Rocky Mountains and early Indian buffalo hunts. Helen Henderson Chain (1848 - 1892), drew Colorado landscapes. She was the first woman to paint the Mount of the Holy Cross, previously done by Thomas Moran. She also founded two women’s art clubs in Denver and taught many students.
Women’s art colonies gathered close to western railroads. Colorado Springs, Denver, Taos, and more cities in Arizona and New Mexico welcomed women artist. They were now called “artists,” not “Sunday painters.” They sold their works to Fred Harvey restaurants and railroad companies. When the Great Depression hit, they, like the men artists, found little work. To support all artists, the federal government commissioned murals for post offices and other public buildings. They didn’t care if the artist were male or female.
Another Coloradoan, Alice Cooper (1875 - 1937) sculpted her most famous piece. A women’s group with the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition commissioned her to sculpt a 7’ replica of Sacagawea. The sculpture still sits in Portland, Oregon’s Washington Park.
Blanche Dugan Cole (1868 - 1956) and her parents moved to Leadville, when she was young. Her father tended to the medical needs of the miners. She was first a writer, then later she illustrated her articles. Notebook paper size canvas served for many of her pictures. The Santa Fe Railway purchased eight of her paintings.
Ila Mcafee (1897 - 1995) was born on a ranch near Gunnison. As a child, paper was scarce. She drew on envelopes, boxes, and at one time drew a horse in the family Bible. She painted horse portraits for wealthy owners and breeders.
Today, exhibits like the May Governor’s Invitational Art Show and Sale at the Loveland Museum feature as many women artists as men.